Martin grinned coolly in Dierich's face.
"However," added the latter, "to content the burgomaster, we will search the house."
Martin turned grave directly.
This change of countenance did not escape Dierich. He reflected a moment.
"Watch outside two of you, one on each side of the house, that no one jump from the upper windows. The rest come with me."
And he took the candle and mounted the stairs, followed by three of his comrades.
Martin was left alone.
The stout soldier hung his head. All had gone so well at first; and now this fatal turn! Suddenly it occurred to him that all was not yet lost. Gerard must be either in Peter's room or Margaret's; they were not so very high from the ground. Gerard would leap out. Dierich had left a man below; but what then? For half a minute Gerard and he would be two to one, and in that brief space, what might not be done?
Martin then held the back door ajar and watched. The light shone in Peter's room. "Curse the fool!" said he, "is he going to let them take him like a girl?"
The light now passed into Margaret's bedroom. Still no window was opened. Had Gerard intended to escape that way, he would not have waited till the men were in the room. Martin saw that at once, and left the door, and came to the foot-stair and listened.
He began to think Gerard must have escaped by the window while all the men were in the house. The longer the silence continued, the stronger grew this conviction. But it was suddenly and rudely dissipated.
Faint cries issued from the inner bedroom—Margaret's.
"They have taken him," groaned Martin; "they have got him."
It now flashed across Martin's mind that if they took Gerard away, his life was not worth a button; and that, if evil befell him, Margaret's heart would break. He cast his eyes wildly round like some savage beast seeking an escape, and in a twinkling formed a resolution terribly characteristic of those iron times and of a soldier driven to bay. He stepped to each door in turn, and imitating Dierich Brower's voice, said sharply, "Watch the window!" He then quietly closed and bolted both doors. He then took up his bow and six arrows; one he fitted to his string, the others he put into his quiver. His knife he placed upon a chair behind him, the hilt towards him; and there he waited at the foot of the stair with the calm determination to slay those four men, or be slain by them. Two, he knew, he could dispose of by his arrows, ere they could get near him, and Gerard and he must take their chance hand-to-hand with the remaining pair. Besides, he had seen men panic-stricken by a sudden attack of this sort. Should Brower and his men hesitate but an instant before closing with him, he should shoot three instead of two, and then the odds would be on the right side.
He had not long to wait. The heavy steps sounded in Margaret's room, and came nearer and nearer.
The light also approached, and voices.
Martin's heart, stout as it was, beat hard, to hear men coming thus to their death, and perhaps to his; more likely so than not: for four is long odds in a battlefield of ten feet square, and Gerard might be bound perhaps, and powerless to help. But this man, whom we have seen shake in his shoes at a Giles-o'-lanthorn, never wavered in this awful moment of real danger, but stood there, his body all braced for combat, and his eye glowing, equally ready to take life and lose it. Desperate game! to win which was exile instant and for life, and to lose it was to die that moment upon that floor he stood on.
Dierich Brower and his men found Peter in his first sleep. They opened his cupboards, they ran their knives into an alligator he had nailed to his wall; they looked under his bed: it was a large room, and apparently full of hiding-places, but they found no Gerard.
Then they went on to Margaret's room, and the very sight of it was discouraging—it was small and bare, and not a cupboard in it; there was, however, a large fireplace and chimney. Dierich's eye fell on these directly. Here they found the beauty of Sevenbergen sleeping on an old chest not a foot high, and no attempt made to cover it; but the sheets were snowy white, and so was Margaret's own linen. And there she lay, looking like a lily fallen into a rut.
Presently she awoke, and sat up in the bed, like one amazed; then, seeing the men, began to scream faintly, and pray for mercy.
She made Dierich Brower ashamed of his errand.
"Here is a to-do," said he, a little confused. "We are not going to hurt you, my pretty maid. Lie you still, and shut your eyes, and think of your wedding-night, while I look up this chimney to see if Master Gerard is there."
"Gerard! in my room?"
"Why not? They say that you and he—"
"Cruel! you know they have driven him away from me—driven him from his native place. This is a blind. You are thieves; you are wicked men; you are not men of Sevenbergen, or you would know Margaret Brandt better than to look for her lover in this room of all others in the world. Oh, brave! Four great hulking men to come, armed to the teeth, to insult one poor honest girl! The women that live in your own houses must be naught, or you would respect them too much to insult a girl of good character."
"There! come away, before we hear worse," said Dierich hastily. "He is not in the chimney. Plaster will mend what a cudgel breaks; but a woman's tongue is a double-edged dagger, and a girl is a woman with her mother's milk still in her." And he beat a hasty retreat. "I told the burgomaster how 'twould be."
Where is the woman that cannot act a part? Where is she who will not do it, and do it well, to save the man she loves? Nature on these great occasions comes to the aid of the simplest of the sex, and teaches her to throw dust in Solomon's eyes. The men had no sooner retired than Margaret stepped out of bed, and opened the long chest on which she had been lying down in her skirt and petticoat and stockings, and nightdress over all; and put the lid, bed-clothes and all, against the wall: then glided to the door and listened. The footsteps died away through her father's room and down the stairs.
Now in that chest there was a peculiarity that it was almost impossible for a stranger to detect. A part of the boarding of the room had been broken, and Gerard being applied to to make it look neater, and being short of materials, had ingeniously sawed away a space sufficient just to admit Margaret's soi-disant bed, and with the materials thus acquired he had repaired the whole room. As for the bed or chest, it really rested on the rafters a foot below the boards. Consequently it was full two feet deep, though it looked scarce one.
All was quiet. Margaret kneeled and gave thanks to Heaven. Then she glided from the door and leaned over the chest, and whispered tenderly, "Gerard!"
Gerard did not reply.
She then whispered a little louder, "Gerard, all is safe, thank Heaven! You may rise; but oh! be cautious!"
Gerard made no reply.
She laid her hand upon his shoulder—"Gerard!"
"Oh, what is this?" she cried, and her hands ran wildly over his face and his bosom. She took him by the shoulders; she shook him; she lifted him; but he escaped from her trembling hands, and fell back, not like a man, but like a body. A great dread fell on her. The lid had been down. She had lain upon it. The men had been some time in the room. With all the strength of frenzy she tore him out of the chest. She bore him in her arms to the window. She dashed the window open. The sweet air came in. She laid him in it and in the moonlight. His face was the colour of ashes; his body was all limp and motionless. She felt his heart. Horror! it was as still as the rest! Horror of horrors! she had stifled him with her own body.
The mind cannot all at once believe so great and sudden and strange a calamity. Gerard, who had got alive into that chest scarce five minutes ago, how could he be dead?
She called him by all the endearing names that heart could think or tongue could frame. She kissed him and fondled him and coaxed him and implored him to speak to her.
No answer to words of love, such as she had never uttered to him before, nor thought she could utter. Then the poor creature, trembling all over, began to say over that ashy face little foolish things that were at once terrible and pitiable.
"Oh, Gerard! I am very sorry you are dead. I am very sorry I have killed you. Forgive me for not letting the men take you; it would have been better than this. Oh, Gerard! I am very, very sorry for what I have done." Then she began suddenly to rave.
"No! no! such things can't be, or there is no God. It is monstrous. How can my Gerard be dead? How can I have killed my Gerard? I love him. Oh, God! you know how I love him. He does not. I never told him. If he knew my heart, he would speak to me, he would not be so deaf to his poor Margaret. It is all a trick to make me cry out and betray him; but no! I love him too well for that. I'll choke first." And she seized her own throat, to check her wild desire to scream in her terror and anguish.
"If he would but say one word. Oh, Gerard! don't die without a word. Have mercy on me and scold me, but speak to me: if you are angry with me, scold me! curse me! I deserve it: the idiot that killed the man she loved better than herself. Ah I am a murderess. The worst in all the world. Help! help! I have murdered him. Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!"
She tore her hair, and uttered shriek after shriek, so wild, so piercing, they fell like a knell upon the ears of Dierich Brower and his men. All started to their feet and looked at one another.
Martin Wittenhaagen, standing at the foot of the stairs with his arrow drawn nearly to the head and his knife behind him, was struck with amazement to see the men come back without Gerard: he lowered his bow and looked open-mouthed at them. They, for their part, were equally puzzled at the attitude they had caught him in.
"Why, mates, was the old fellow making ready to shoot at us?"
"Stuff!" said Martin, recovering his stolid composure; "I was but trying my new string. There! I'll unstring my bow, if you think that."
"Humph!" said Dierich suspiciously, "there is something more in you than I understand: put a log on, and let us dry our hides a bit ere we go."
A blazing fire was soon made, and the men gathered round it, and their clothes and long hair were soon smoking from the cheerful blaze. Then it was that the shrieks were heard in Margaret's room. They all started up, and one of them seized the candle and ran up the steps that led to the bedrooms.
Martin rose hastily too, and being confused by these sudden screams, and apprehending danger from the man's curiosity, tried to prevent him from going there.
At this Dierich threw his arms round him from behind, and called on the others to keep him. The man that had the candle got clear away, and all the rest fell upon Martin, and after a long and fierce struggle, in the course of which they were more than once all rolling on the floor, with Martin in the middle, they succeeded in mastering the old Samson, and binding him hand and foot with a rope they had brought for Gerard.
Martin groaned aloud. He saw the man had made his way to Margaret's room during the struggle, and here was he powerless.
"Ay, grind your teeth, you old rogue," said Dierich, panting with the struggle. "You shan't use them."
"It is my belief, mates, that our lives were scarce safe while this old fellow's bones were free."
"He makes me think this Gerard is not far off," put in another.
"No such luck," replied Dierich. "Hallo, mates. Jorian Ketel is a long time in that girl's bedroom. Best go and see after him, some of us."
The rude laugh caused by this remark had hardly subsided, when hasty footsteps were heard running along over head.
"Oh, here he comes, at last. Well, Jorian, what is to do now up there?"
Jorian Ketel went straight to Margaret's room, and there, to his infinite surprise, he found the man he had been in search of, pale and motionless, his head in Margaret's lap, and she kneeling over him, mute now, and stricken to stone. Her eyes were dilated yet glazed, and she neither saw the light nor heard the man, nor cared for anything on earth, but the white face in her lap.
Jorian stood awe-struck, the candle shaking in his hand.
"Why, where was he, then, all the time?"
Margaret heeded him not. Jorian went to the empty chest and inspected it. He began to comprehend. The girl's dumb and frozen despair moved him.
"This is a sorry sight," said he; "it is a black night's work: all for a few skins! Better have gone with us than so. She is past answering me, poor wench. Stop! let us try whether—"
He took down a little round mirror, no bigger than his hand, and put it to Gerard's mouth and nostrils, and held it there. When he withdrew it, it was dull.
"THERE IS LIFE IN HIM!" said Jorian Ketel to himself.
Margaret caught the words instantly, though only muttered, and it was if a statue should start into life and passion. She rose and flung her arms round Jorian's neck.
"Oh, bless the tongue that tells me so!" and she clasped the great rough fellow again and again, eagerly, almost fiercely.
"There, there! let us lay him warm, said Jorian; and in a moment he raised Gerard and laid him on the bed-clothes. Then he took out a flask he carried, and filled his hand twice with Schiedamze, and flung it sharply each time in Gerard's face. The pungent liquor co-operated with his recovery—he gave a faint sigh. Oh, never was sound so joyful to human ear! She flew towards him, but then stopped, quivering for fear she should hurt him. She had lost all confidence in herself.
"That is right—let him alone," said Jorian; "don't go cuddling him as you did me, or you'll drive his breath back again. Let him alone: he is sure to come to. 'Tisn't like as if he was an old man."
Gerard sighed deeply, and a faint streak of colour stole to his lips. Jorian made for the door. He had hardly reached it, when he found his legs seized from behind.
It was Margaret! She curled round his knees like a serpent, and kissed his hand, and fawned on him. "You won't tell? You have saved his life; you have not the heart to thrust him back into his grave, to undo your own good work?"
"No, no! It is not the first time I have done you two a good turn; 'twas I told you in the church whither we had to take him. Besides, what is Dierich Brower to me? I'll see him hanged ere I'll tell him. But I wish you'd tell me where the parchments are! There are a hundred crowns offered for them. That would be a good windfall for my Joan and the children, you know."
"Ah! they shall have those hundred crowns.
"What! are the things in the house?" asked Jorian eagerly.
"No; but I know where they are; and by God and St. Bavon I swear you shall have them to-morrow. Come to me for them when you will, but come alone."
"I were made else. What! share the hundred crowns with Dirk Brower? And now may my bones rot in my skin if I let a soul know the poor boy is here."
He then ran off, lest by staying longer he should excite suspicion, and have them all after him. And Margaret knelt, quivering from head to foot, and prayed beside Gerard and for Gerard.
"What is to do?" replied Jorian to Dierich Brower's query; "why, we have scared the girl out of her wits. She was in a kind of fit."
"We had better all go and doctor her, then."
"Oh, yes! and frighten her into the churchyard. Her father is a doctor, and I have roused him, and set him to bring her round. Let us see the fire, will ye?"
His off-hand way disarmed all suspicion. And soon after the party agreed that the kitchen of the "Three Kings" was much warmer than Peter's house, and they departed, having first untied Martin.
"Take note, mate, that I was right, and the burgomaster wrong," said Dierich Brower at the door; "I said we should be too late to catch him, and we were too late."
Thus Gerard, in one terrible night, grazed the prison and the grave.
And how did he get clear at last? Not by his cunningly contrived hiding-place, nor by Margaret's ready wit; but by a good impulse in one of his captors, by the bit of humanity left in a somewhat reckless fellow's heart, aided by his desire of gain. So mixed and seemingly incongruous are human motives, so shortsighted our shrewdest counsels.
They whose moderate natures or gentle fates keep them, in life's passage, from the fierce extremes of joy and anguish our nature is capable of, are perhaps the best, and certainly the happiest of mankind. But to such readers I should try in vain to convey what bliss unspeakable settled now upon these persecuted lovers, Even to those who have joyed greatly and greatly suffered, my feeble art can present but a pale reflection of Margaret's and Gerard's ecstasy.
To sit and see a beloved face come back from the grave to the world, to health and beauty, by swift gradations; to see the roses return to the loved cheek, love's glance to the loved eye, and his words to the loved mouth—this was Margaret's—a joy to balance years of sorrow. It was Gerard's to awake from a trance, and find his head pillowed on Margaret's arm; to hear the woman he adored murmur new words of eloquent love, and shower tears and tender kisses and caresses on him. He never knew, till this sweet moment, how ardently, how tenderly, she loved him. He thanked his enemies. They wreathed their arms sweetly round each other, and trouble and danger seemed a world, an age behind them. They called each other husband and wife. Were they not solemnly betrothed? And had they not stood before the altar together? Was not the blessing of Holy Church upon their union?—her curse on all who would part them?
But as no woman's nerves can bear with impunity so terrible a strain. presently Margaret turned faint, and sank on Gerard's shoulder, smiling feebly, but quite, quite unstrung. Then Gerard was anxious, and would seek assistance. But she held him with a gentle grasp, and implored him not to leave her for a moment.
"While I can lay my hand on you, I feel you are safe, not else. Foolish Gerard! nothing ails me. I am weak, dearest, but happy, oh! so happy!"
Then it was Gerard's turn to support that dear head, with its great waves of hair flowing loose over him, and nurse her, and soothe her, quivering on his bosom, with soft encouraging words and murmurs of love, and gentle caresses. Sweetest of all her charms is a woman's weakness to a manly heart.
Poor things! they were happy. To-morrow they must part. But that was nothing to them now. They had seen Death, and all other troubles seemed light as air. While there is life there is hope; while there is hope there is joy. Separation for a year or two, what was it to them, who were so young, and had caught a glimpse of the grave? The future was bright, the present was Heaven: so passed the blissful hours.
Alas! their innocence ran other risks besides the prison and the grave. They were in most danger from their own hearts and their inexperience, now that visible danger there was none.
Ghysbrecht Van Swieten could not sleep all night for anxiety. He was afraid of thunder and lightning, or he would have made one of the party that searched Peter's house. As soon as the storm ceased altogether, he crept downstairs, saddled his mule, and rode to the "Three Kings" at Sevenbergen. There he found his men sleeping, some on the chairs, some on the tables, some on the floor. He roused them furiously, and heard the story of their unsuccessful search, interlarded with praises of their zeal.
"Fool! to let you go without me," cried the burgomaster. "My life on't he was there all the time. Looked ye under the girl's bed?"
"No; there was no room for a man there."
"How know ye that, if ye looked not?" snarled Ghysbrecht. "Ye should have looked under her bed, and in it too, and sounded all the panels with your knives. Come, now, get up, and I shall show ye how to search."
Dierich Brower got up and shook himself. "If you find him, call me a horse and no man."
In a few minutes Peter's house was again surrounded.
The fiery old man left his mule in the hands of Jorian Ketel, and, with Dierich Brower and the others, entered the house.
The house was empty.
Not a creature to be seen, not even Peter. They went upstairs, and then suddenly one of the men gave a shout, and pointed through Peter's window, which was open. The others looked, and there, at some little distance, walking quietly across the fields with Margaret and Martin, was the man they sought. Ghysbrecht, with an exulting yell, descended the stairs and flung himself on his mule; and he and his men set off in hot pursuit.
Gerard warned by recent peril, rose before daybreak and waked Martin. The old soldier was astonished. He thought Gerard had escaped by the window last night. Being consulted as to the best way for him to leave the country and elude pursuit, he said there was but one road safe. "I must guide you through the great forest to a bridle-road I know of. This will take you speedily to a hostelry, where they will lend you a swift horse; and then a day's gallop will take you out of Holland. But let us start ere the folk here quit their beds."
Peter's house was but a furlong and a half from the forest. They started, Martin with his bow and three arrows, for it was Thursday; Gerard with nothing but a stout oak staff Peter gave him for the journey.
Margaret pinned up her kirtle and farthingale, for the road was wet. Peter went as far as his garden hedge with them, and then with more emotion than he often bestowed on passing events, gave the young man his blessing.
The sun was peeping above the horizon as they crossed the stony field and made for the wood. They had crossed about half, when Margaret, who kept nervously looking back every now and then, uttered a cry, and, following her instinct, began to run towards the wood, screaming with terror all the way.
Ghysbrecht and his men were in hot pursuit.
Resistance would have been madness. Martin and Gerard followed Margaret's example. The pursuers gained slightly on them; but Martin kept shouting, "Only win the wood! only win the wood!"
They had too good a start for the men on foot, and their hearts bounded with hope at Martin's words, for the great trees seemed now to stretch their branches like friendly arms towards them, and their leaves like a screen.
But an unforeseen danger attacked them. The fiery old burgomaster flung himself on his mule, and, spurring him to a gallop, he headed not his own men only, but the fugitives. His object was to cut them off. The old man came galloping in a semicircle, and got on the edge of the wood, right in front of Gerard; the others might escape for aught he cared.
Margaret shrieked, and tried to protect Gerard by clasping him; but he shook her off without ceremony.
Ghysbrecht in his ardour forgot that hunted animals turn on the hunter; and that two men can hate, and two can long to kill the thing they hate.
Instead of attempting to dodge him, as the burgomaster made sure he would, Gerard flew right at him, with a savage, exulting cry, and struck at him with all his heart, and soul and strength. The oak staff came down on Ghysbrecht's face with a frightful crash, and laid him under his mule's tail beating the devil's tattoo with his heels, his face streaming, and his collar spattered with blood.
The next moment the three were in the wood. The yell of dismay and vengeance that burst from Ghysbrecht's men at that terrible blow which felled their leader, told the fugitives that it was now a race for life or death.
"Why run?" cried Gerard, panting. "You have your bow, and I have this," and he shook his bloody staff.
"Boy!" roared Martin; "the GALLOWS! Follow me," and he fled into the wood. Soon they heard a cry like a pack of hounds opening on sight of the game. The men were in the wood, and saw them flitting amongst the trees. Margaret moaned and panted as she ran; and Gerard clenched his teeth and grasped his staff. The next minute they came to a stiff hazel coppice. Martin dashed into it, and shouldered the young wood aside as if it were standing corn.
Ere they had gone fifty yards in it they came to four blind paths.
Martin took one. "Bend low," said he. And, half creeping, they glided along. Presently their path was again intersected with other little tortuous paths. They took one of them. It seemed to lead back; but it soon took a turn, and, after a while, brought them to a thick pine grove, where the walking was good and hard. There were no paths here; and the young fir-trees were so thick, you could not see three yards before your nose.
When they had gone some way in this, Martin sat down; and, having learned in war to lose all impression of danger with the danger itself, took a piece of bread and a slice of ham out of his wallet, and began quietly to eat his breakfast.
The young ones looked at him with dismay. He replied to their looks.
"All Sevenbergen could not find you now; you will lose your purse, Gerard, long before you get to Italy; is that the way to carry a purse?"
Gerard looked, and there was a large triangular purse, entangled by its chains to the buckle and strap of his wallet.
"This is none of mine," said he. "What is in it, I wonder?" and he tried to detach it; but in passing through the coppice it had become inextricably entangled in his strap and buckle. "It seems loath to leave me," said Gerard, and he had to cut it loose with his knife. The purse, on examination, proved to be well provided with silver coins of all sizes, but its bloated appearance was greatly owing to a number of pieces of brown paper folded and doubled. A light burst on Gerard. "Why, it must be that old thief's; and see! stuffed with paper to deceive the world!"
The wonder was how the burgomaster's purse came on Gerard.
They hit at last upon the right solution. The purse must have been at Ghysbrecht's saddle-bow, and Gerard rushing at his enemy, had unconsciously torn it away, thus felling his enemy and robbing him, with a single gesture.
Gerard was delighted at this feat, but Margaret was uneasy.
"Throw it away, Gerard, or let Martin take it back. Already they call you a thief. I cannot bear it."
"Throw it away! give it him back? not a stiver! This is spoil lawfully won in battle from an enemy. Is it not, Martin?"
"Why, of course. Send him back the brown paper, and you will; but the purse or the coin—that were a sin."
"Oh, Gerard!" said Margaret, "you are going to a distant land. We need the goodwill of Heaven. How can we hope for that if we take what is not ours?"
But Gerard saw it in a different light.
"It is Heaven that gives it me by a miracle, and I shall cherish it accordingly," said this pious youth. "Thus the favoured people spoiled the Egyptians, and were blessed."
"Take your own way," said Margaret humbly; "you are wiser than I am. You are my husband," added she, in a low murmuring voice; "is it for me to gainsay you?"
These humble words from Margaret, who, till that day, had held the whip-hand, rather surprised Martin for the moment. They recurred to him some time afterwards, and then they surprised him less.
Gerard kissed her tenderly in return for her wife-like docility, and they pursued their journey hand in hand, Martin leading the way, into the depths of the huge forest. The farther they went, the more absolutely secure from pursuit they felt. Indeed, the townspeople never ventured so far as this into the trackless part of the forest.
Impetuous natures repent quickly. Gerard was no sooner out of all danger than his conscience began to prick him.
"Martin, would I had not struck quite so hard."
"Whom? Oh! let that pass, he is cheap served."
"Martin, I saw his grey hairs as my stick fell on him. I doubt they will not from my sight this while."
Martin grunted with contempt. "Who spares a badger for his grey hairs? The greyer your enemy is, the older; and the older the craftier and the craftier the better for a little killing."
"Killing? killing, Martin? Speak not of killing!" and Gerard shook all over.
"I am much mistook if you have not," said Martin cheerfully.
"Now Heaven forbid!"
"The old vagabond's skull cracked like a walnut. Aha!"
"Heaven and the saints forbid it!"
"He rolled off his mule like a stone shot out of a cart. Said I to myself, 'There is one wiped out,'" and the iron old soldier grinned ruthlessly.
Gerard fell on his knees and began to pray for his enemy's life.
At this Martin lost his patience. "Here's mummery. What! you that set up for learning, know you not that a wise man never strikes his enemy but to kill him? And what is all this coil about killing of old men? If it had been a young one, now, with the joys of life waiting for him, wine, women, and pillage! But an old fellow at the edge of the grave, why not shove him in? Go he must, to-day or to-morrow; and what better place for greybeards? Now, if ever I should be so mischancy as to last so long as Ghysbrecht did, and have to go on a mule's legs instead of Martin Wittenhaagen's, and a back like this (striking the wood of his bow), instead of this (striking the string), I'll thank and bless any young fellow who will knock me on the head, as you have done that old shopkeeper; malison on his memory.
"Oh, culpa mea! culpa mea!" cried Gerard, and smote upon his breast.
"Look there!" cried Martin to Margaret scornfully, "he is a priest at heart still—and when he is not in ire, St. Paul, what a milksop!"
"Tush, Martin!" cried Margaret reproachfully: then she wreathed her arms round Gerard, and comforted him with the double magic of a woman's sense and a woman's voice.
"Sweetheart!" murmured she, "you forget: you went not a step out of the way to harm him, who hunted you to your death. You fled from him. He it was who spurred on you. Then did you strike; but in self-defence and a single blow, and with that which was in your hand. Malice had drawn knife, or struck again and again. How often have men been smitten with staves not one but many blows, yet no lives lost! If then your enemy has fallen, it is through his own malice, not yours, and by the will of God."
"Bless you, Margaret; bless you for thinking so!"
"Yes; but, beloved one, if you have had the misfortune to kill that wicked man, the more need is there that you fly with haste from Holland. Oh, let us on."
"Nay, Margaret," said Gerard. "I fear not man's vengeance, thanks to Martin here and this thick wood: only Him I fear whose eye pierces the forest and reads the heart of man. If I but struck in self-defence, 'tis well; but if in hate, He may bid the avenger of blood follow me to Italy—to Italy? ay, to earth's remotest bounds."
"Hush!" said Martin peevishly. "I can't hear for your chat."
"What is it?"
"Do you hear nothing, Margaret; my ears are getting old."
Margaret listened, and presently she heard a tuneful sound, like a single stroke upon a deep ringing bell. She described it so to Martin.
"Nay, I heard it," said he.
"And so did I," said Gerard; "it was beautiful. Ah! there it is again. How sweetly it blends with the air. It is a long way off. It is before us, is it not?"
"No, no! the echoes of this wood confound the ear of a stranger. It comes from the pine grove."
"What! the one we passed?"
"Why, Martin, is this anything? You look pale."
"Wonderful!" said Martin, with a sickly sneer. "He asks me is it anything? Come, on, on! at any rate, let us reach a better place than this."
"A better place—for what?"
"To stand at bay, Gerard," said Martin gravely; "and die like soldiers, killing three for one."
"What's that sound?"
"IT IS THE AVENGER OF BLOOD."
"Oh, Martin, save him! Oh, Heaven be merciful What new mysterious peril is this?"
"GIRL, IT'S A BLOODHOUND."
The courage, like the talent, of common men, runs in a narrow groove. Take them but an inch out of that, and they are done. Martin's courage was perfect as far as it went. He had met and baffled many dangers in the course of his rude life, and these familiar dangers he could face with Spartan fortitude, almost with indifference; but he had never been hunted by a bloodhound, nor had he ever seen that brute's unerring instinct baffled by human cunning. Here then a sense of the supernatural combined with novelty to ungenteel his heart. After going a few steps, he leaned on his bow, and energy and hope oozed out of him. Gerard, to whom the danger appeared slight in proportion as it was distant, urged him to flight.
"What avails it?" said Martin sadly; "if we get clear of the wood we shall die cheap; here, hard by, I know a place where we may die dear."
"Alas! good Martin," cried Gerard, "despair not so quickly; there must be some way to escape."
"Oh, Martin!" cried Margaret, "what if we were to part company? Gerard's life alone is forfeit. Is there no way to draw the pursuit on us twain and let him go safe?"
"Girl, you know not the bloodhound's nature. He is not on this man's track or that; he is on the track of blood. My life on't they have taken him to where Ghysbrecht fell, and from the dead man's blood to the man that shed it that cursed hound will lead them, though Gerard should run through an army or swim the Meuse." And again he leaned upon his bow, and his head sank.
The hound's mellow voice rang through the wood.
A cry more tunable Was never halloed to, nor cheered with horn, In Crete, in Sparta, or in Thessaly.
Strange that things beautiful should be terrible and deadly' The eye of the boa-constrictor, while fascinating its prey, is lovely. No royal crown holds such a jewel; it is a ruby with the emerald's green light playing ever upon it. Yet the deer that sees it loses all power of motion, and trembles, and awaits his death and even so, to compare hearing with sight, this sweet and mellow sound seemed to fascinate Martin Wittenhaagen. He stood uncertain, bewildered, and unnerved. Gerard was little better now. Martin's last words had daunted him, He had struck an old man and shed his blood, and, by means of that very blood, blood's four-footed avenger was on his track. Was not the finger of Heaven in this?
Whilst the men were thus benumbed, the woman's brain was all activity. The man she loved was in danger.
"Lend me your knife," said she to Martin. He gave it her.
"But 'twill be little use in your hands," said he.
Then Margaret did a sly thing. She stepped behind Gerard, and furtively drew the knife across her arm, and made it bleed freely; then stooping, smeared her hose and shoes; and still as the blood trickled she smeared them; but so adroitly that neither Gerard nor Martin saw. Then she seized the soldier's arm.
"Come, be a man!" she said, "and let this end. Take us to some thick place, where numbers will not avail our foes."
"I am going," said Martin sulkily. "Hurry avails not; we cannot shun the hound, and the place is hard by;" then turning to the left, he led the way, as men go to execution.
He soon brought them to a thick hazel coppice, like the one that had favoured their escape in the morning.
"There," said he, "this is but a furlong broad, but it will serve our turn."
"What are we to do?"
"Get through this, and wait on the other side; then as they come straggling through, shoot three, knock two on the head, and the rest will kill us."
"Is that all you can think of?" said Gerard.
"That is all."
"Then, Martin Wittenhaagen, I take the lead, for you have lost your head. Come, can you obey so young a man as I am?"
"Oh, yes, Martin," cried Margaret, "do not gainsay Gerard! He is wiser than his years."
Martin yielded a sullen assent.
"Do then as you see me do," said Gerard; and drawing his huge knife, he cut at every step a hazel shoot or two close by the ground, and turning round twisted them breast-high behind him among the standing shoots. Martin did the same, but with a dogged hopeless air. When they had thus painfully travelled through the greater part of the coppice, the bloodhound's deep bay came nearer and nearer, less and less musical, louder and sterner.
Martin went down on his stomach and listened.
"I hear a horse's feet."
"No," said Gerard; "I doubt it is a mule's. That cursed Ghysbrecht is still alive: none other would follow me up so bitterly."
"Never strike your enemy but to slay him," said Martin gloomily.
"I'll hit harder this time, if Heaven gives me the chance," said Gerard.
At last they worked through the coppice, and there was an open wood. The trees were large, but far apart, and no escape possible that way.
And now with the hound's bay mingled a score of voices hooping and hallooing.
"The whole village is out after us," said Martin.
"I care not," said Gerard. "Listen, Martin. I have made the track smooth to the dog, but rough to the men, that we may deal with them apart. Thus the hound will gain on the men, and as soon as he comes out of the coppice we must kill him."
"The hound? There are more than one."
"I hear but one."
"Ay! but one speaks, the others run mute; but let the leading hound lose the scent, then another shall give tongue. There will be two dogs, at least, or devils in dog's hides."
"Then we must kill two instead of one. The moment they are dead, into the coppice again, and go right back."
"That is a good thought, Gerard," said Martin, plucking up heart.
"Hush! the men are in the wood."
Gerard now gave his orders in a whisper.
"Stand you with your bow by the side of the coppice—there, in the ditch. I will go but a few yards to yon oak-tree, and hide behind it; the dogs will follow me, and, as they come out, shoot as many as you can, the rest will I brain as they come round the tree."
Martin's eye flashed. They took up their places.
The hooping and hallooing came closer and closer, and soon even the rustling of the young wood was heard, and every now and then the unerring bloodhound gave a single bay.
It was terrible! the branches rustling nearer and nearer, and the inevitable struggle for life and death coming on minute by minute, and that death-knell leading it. A trembling hand was laid on Gerard's shoulder. It made him start violently, strung up as he was.
"Martin says if we are forced to part company, make for that high ash-tree we came in by."
"Yes! yes! yes! but go back for Heaven's sake! don't come here, all out in the open!"
She ran back towards Martin; but, ere she could get to him, suddenly a huge dog burst out of the coppice, and stood erect a moment. Margaret cowered with fear, but he never noticed her. Scent was to him what sight is to us. He lowered his nose an instant, and the next moment, with an awful yell, sprang straight at Gerard's tree and rolled head-over-heels dead as a stone, literally spitted with an arrow from the bow that twanged beside the coppice in Martin's hand. That same moment out came another hound and smelt his dead comrade. Gerald rushed out at him; but ere he could use his cudgel, a streak of white lightning seemed to strike the hound, and he grovelled in the dust, wounded desperately, but not killed, and howling piteously.
Gerard had not time to despatch him: the coppice rustled too near: it seemed alive. Pointing wildly to Martin to go back, Gerard ran a few yards to the right, then crept cautiously into the thick coppice just as three men burst out. These had headed their comrades considerably: the rest were following at various distances. Gerard crawled back almost on all-fours. Instinct taught Martin and Margaret to do the same upon their line of retreat. Thus, within the distance of a few yards, the pursuers and pursued were passing one another upon opposite tracks.
A loud cry announced the discovery of the dead and the wounded hound. Then followed a babble of voices, still swelling as fresh pursuers reached the spot. The hunters, as usual on a surprise, were wasting time, and the hunted ones were making the most of it.
"I hear no more hounds," whispered Martin to Margaret, and he was himself again.
It was Margaret's turn to tremble and despair.
"Oh, why did we part with Gerard? They will kill my Gerard, and I not near him."
"Nay, nay! the head to catch him is not on their shoulders. You bade him meet us at the ash-tree?"
"And so I did. Bless you, Martin, for thinking of that. To the ash-tree!"
"Ay! but with less noise."
They were now nearly at the edge of the coppice, when suddenly they heard hooping and hallooing behind them. The men had satisfied themselves the fugitives were in the coppice, and were beating back.
"No matter," whispered Martin to his trembling companion. "We shall have time to win clear and slip back out of sight by hard running. Ah!"
He stooped suddenly; for just as he was going to burst out of the brushwood, his eye caught a figure keeping sentinel. It was Ghysbrecht Van Swieten seated on his mule; a bloody bandage was across his nose, the bridge of which was broken; but over this his eyes peered keenly, and it was plain by their expression he had heard the fugitives rustle, and was looking out for them. Martin muttered a terrible oath, and cautiously strung his bow, then with equal caution fitted his last arrow to the string. Margaret put her hands to her face, but said nothing. She saw this man must die or Gerard. After the first impulse she peered through her fingers, her heart panting to her throat.
The bow was raised, and the deadly arrow steadily drawn to its head, when at that moment an active figure leaped on Ghysbrecht from behind so swiftly, it was like a hawk swooping on a pigeon. A kerchief went over the burgomaster, in a turn of the hand his head was muffled in it, and he was whirled from his seat and fell heavily upon the ground, where he lay groaning with terror; and Gerard jumped down after him.
"Hist, Martin! Martin!"
Martin and Margaret came out, the former openmouthed crying, "Now fly! fly! while they are all in the thicket; we are saved."
At this crisis, when safety seemed at hand, as fate would have it, Margaret, who had borne up so bravely till now, began to succumb, partly from loss of blood.
"Oh, my beloved, fly!" she gasped. "Leave me, for I am faint."
"No! no!" cried Gerard. "Death together, or safety. Ah! the mule! mount her, you, and I'll run by your side."
In a moment Martin was on Ghysbrecht's mule, and Gerard raised the fainting girl in his arms and placed her on the saddle, and relieved Martin of his bow.
"Help! treason! murder! murder!" shrieked Ghysbrecht, suddenly rising on his hams.
"Silence, cur," roared Gerard, and trode him down again by the throat as men crush an adder.
"Now, have you got her firm? Then fly! for our lives! for our lives!"
But even as the mule, urged suddenly by Martin's heel, scattered the flints with his hind hoofs ere he got into a canter, and even as Gerard withdrew his foot from Ghysbrecht's throat to run, Dierich Brower and his five men, who had come back for orders, and heard the burgomaster's cries, burst roaring out of the coppice on them.
Speech is the familiar vent of human thoughts; but there are emotions so simple and overpowering, that they rush out not in words, but eloquent sounds. At such moments man seems to lose his characteristics, and to be merely one of the higher animals; for these, when greatly agitated, ejaculate, though they cannot speak.
There was something terrible and truly animal, both in the roar of triumph with which the pursuers burst out of the thicket on our fugitives, and the sharp cry of terror with which these latter darted away. The pursuers hands clutched the empty air, scarce two feet behind them, as they fled for life. Confused for a moment, like lions that miss their spring, Dierich and his men let Gerard and the mule put ten yards between them. Then they flew after with uplifted weapons. They were sure of catching them; for this was not the first time the parties had measured speed. In the open ground they had gained visibly on the three this morning, and now, at last, it was a fair race again, to be settled by speed alone. A hundred yards were covered in no time. Yet still there remained these ten yards between the pursuers and the pursued.
This increase of speed since the morning puzzled Dierich Brower. The reason was this. When three run in company, the pace is that of the slowest of the three. From Peter's house to the edge of the forest Gerard ran Margaret's pace; but now he ran his own; for the mule was fleet, and could have left them all far behind. Moreover, youth and chaste living began to tell. Daylight grew imperceptibly between the hunted ones and the hunters. Then Dierich made a desperate effort, and gained two yards; but in a few seconds Gerard had stolen them quietly back. The pursuers began to curse.
Martin heard, and his face lighted up. "Courage, Gerard! courage, brave lad! they are straggling."
It was so. Dierich was now headed by one of his men, and another dropped into the rear altogether.
They came to a rising ground, not sharp, but long; and here youth, and grit, and sober living told more than ever.
Ere he reached the top, Dierich's forty years weighed him down like forty bullets. "Our cake is dough," he gasped. "Take him dead, if you can't alive;" and he left running, and followed at a foot's pace. Jorian Ketel tailed off next; and then another, and so, one by one, Gerard ran them all to a standstill, except one who kept on stanch as a bloodhound, though losing ground every minute. His name, if I am not mistaken, was Eric Wouverman. Followed by him, they came to a rise in the wood, shorter, but much steeper than the last.
"Hand on mane!" cried Martin.
Gerard obeyed, and the mule helped him up the hill faster even than he was running before.
At the sight of this manoeuvre, Dierich's man lost heart, and, being now full eighty yards behind Gerard, and rather more than that in advance of his nearest comrade, he pulled up short, and, in obedience to Dierich's order, took down his crossbow, levelled it deliberately, and just as the trio were sinking out of sight over the crest of the hill, sent the bolt whizzing among them.
There was a cry of dismay; and, next moment, as if a thunder-bolt had fallen on them, they were all lying on the ground, mule and all.
The effect was so sudden and magical, that the shooter himself was stupefied for an instant. Then he hailed his companions to join him in effecting the capture, and himself set off up the hill; but, ere he had got half way, up rose the figure of Martin Wittenhaagen with a bent bow in his hand. Eric Wouverman no sooner saw him in this attitude, than he darted behind a tree, and made himself as small as possible. Martin's skill with that weapon was well known, and the slain dog was a keen reminder of it.
Wouverman peered round the bark cautiously: there was the arrow's point still aimed at him. He saw it shine. He dared not move from his shelter.
When he had been at peep-ho some minutes, his companions came up in great force.
Then, with a scornful laugh, Martin vanished, and presently was heard to ride off on the mule.
All the men ran up together. The high ground commanded a view of a narrow but almost interminable glade.
They saw Gerard and Margaret running along at a prodigious distance; they looked like gnats; and Martin galloping after them ventre a terre.
The hunters were outwitted as well as outrun. A few words will explain Martin's conduct. We arrive at causes by noting coincidences; yet, now and then, coincidences are deceitful. As we have all seen a hare tumble over a briar just as the gun went off, and so raise expectations, then dash them to earth by scudding away untouched, so the burgomaster's mule put her foot in a rabbit-hole at or about the time the crossbow bolt whizzed innocuous over her head: she fell and threw both her riders. Gerard caught Margaret, but was carried down by her weight and impetus; and, behold, the soil was strewed with dramatis personae.
The docile mule was up again directly, and stood trembling. Martin was next, and looking round saw there was but one in pursuit; on this he made the young lovers fly on foot, while he checked the enemy as I have recorded.
He now galloped after his companions, and when after a long race he caught them, he instantly put Gerard and Margaret on the mule, and ran by their side till his breath failed, then took his turn to ride, and so in rotation. Thus the runner was always fresh, and long ere they relaxed their speed all sound and trace of them was hopelessly lost to Dierich and his men. These latter went crestfallen back to look after their chief and their winged bloodhound.
Life and liberty, while safe, are little thought of: for why? they are matters of course. Endangered, they are rated at their real value. In this, too, they are like sunshine, whose beauty men notice not at noon when it is greatest, but towards evening, when it lies in flakes of topaz under shady elms. Yet it is feebler then; but gloom lies beside it, and contrast reveals its fire. Thus Gerard and Margaret, though they started at every leaf that rustled louder than its fellows, glowed all over with joy and thankfulness as they glided among the friendly trees in safety and deep tranquil silence, baying dogs and brutal voices yet ringing in their mind's ears.
But presently Gerard found stains of blood on Margaret's ankles.
"Martin! Martin! help! they have wounded her: the crossbow!"
"No, no!" said Margaret, smiling to reassure him; "I am not wounded, nor hurt at all."
"But what is it, then, in Heaven's name?" cried Gerard, in great agitation.
"Scold me not, then!" and Margaret blushed.
"Did I ever scold you?"
"No, dear Gerard. Well, then, Martin said it was blood those cruel dogs followed; so I thought if I could but have a little blood on my shoon, the dogs would follow me instead, and let my Gerard wend free. So I scratched my arm with Martin's knife—forgive me! Whose else could I take? Yours, Gerard? Ah, no. You forgive me?" said she beseechingly, and lovingly and fawningly, all in one.
"Let me see this scratch first," said Gerard, choking with emotion. "There, I thought so. A scratch? I call it a cut—a deep, terrible, cruel cut."
Gerard shuddered at sight of it.
"She might have done it with her bodkin," said the soldier. "Milksop! that sickens at sight of a scratch and a little blood."
"No, no. I could look on a sea of blood, but not on hers. Oh, Margaret! how could you be so cruel?"
Margaret smiled with love ineffable. "Foolish Gerard," murmured she, "to make so much of nothing." And she flung the guilty arm round his neck. "As if I would not give all the blood in my heart for you, let alone a few drops from my arm." And with this, under the sense of his recent danger, she wept on his neck for pity and love; and he wept with her.
"And I must part from her," he sobbed; "we two that love so dear—one must be in Holland, one in Italy. Ah me! ah me! ah me!"
At this Margaret wept afresh, but patiently and silently. Instinct is never off its guard, and with her unselfishness was an instinct. To utter her present thoughts would be to add to Gerard's misery at parting, so she wept in silence.
Suddenly they emerged upon a beaten path, and Martin stopped.
"This is the bridle-road I spoke of," said he hanging his head; "and there away lies the hostelry."
Margaret and Gerard cast a scared look at one another.
"Come a step with me, Martin," whispered Gerard. When he had drawn him aside, he said to him in a broken voice, "Good Martin, watch over her for me! She is my wife; yet I leave her. See Martin! here is gold—it was for my journey; it is no use my asking her to take it—she would not; but you will for her, will you not? Oh, Heaven! and is this all I can do for her? Money? But poverty is a curse. You will not let her want for anything, dear Martin? The burgomaster's silver is enough for me."
"Thou art a good lad, Gerard. Neither want nor harm shall come to her. I care more for her little finger than for all the world; and were she nought to me, even for thy sake would I be a father to her. Go with a stout heart, and God be with thee going and coming." And the rough soldier wrung Gerard's hand, and turned his head away, with unwonted feeling.
After a moment's silence he was for going back to Margaret, but Gerard stopped him. "No, good Martin; prithee, stay here behind this thicket, and turn your head away from us, while I-oh, Martin! Martin!"
By this means Gerard escaped a witness of his anguish at leaving her he loved, and Martin escaped a piteous sight. He did not see the poor young things kneel and renew before Heaven those holy vows cruel men had interrupted. He did not see them cling together like one, and then try to part, and fail, and return to one another, and cling again, like drowning, despairing creatures. But he heard Gerard sob, and sob, and Margaret moan.
At last there was a hoarse cry, and feet pattered on the hard road.
He started up, and there was Gerard running wildly, with both hands clasped above his head, in prayer, and Margaret tottering back towards him with palms extended piteously, as if for help, and ashy cheek and eyes fixed on vacancy.
He caught her in his arms, and spoke words of comfort to her; but her mind could not take them in; only at the sound of his voice she moaned and held him tight, and trembled violently.
He got her on the mule, and put his arm around her, and so, supporting her frame, which, from being strong like a boy, had now turned all relaxed and powerless, he took her slowly and sadly home.
She did not shed one tear, nor speak one word.
At the edge of the wood he took her off the mule, and bade her go across to her father's house. She did as she was bid.
Martin to Rotterdam. Sevenbergen was too hot for him.
Gerard, severed from her he loved, went like one in a dream. He hired a horse and a guide at the little hostelry, and rode swiftly towards the German frontier. But all was mechanical; his senses felt blunted; trees and houses and men moved by him like objects seen through a veil. His companions spoke to him twice, but he did not answer. Only once he cried out savagely, "Shall we never be out of this hateful country?"
After many hours' riding they came to the brow of a steep hill; a small brook ran at the bottom.
"Halt!" cried the guide, and pointed across the valley. "Here is Germany."
"On t'other side of the bourn. No need to ride down the hill, I trow."
Gerard dismounted without a word, and took the burgomaster's purse from his girdle: while he opened it, "You will soon be out of this hateful country," said his guide, half sulkily; "mayhap the one you are going to will like you no better; any way, though it be a church you have robbed, they cannot take you, once across that bourn."
These words at another time would have earned the speaker an admonition or a cuff. They fell on Gerard now like idle air. He paid the lad in silence, and descended the hill alone. The brook was silvery; it ran murmuring over little pebbles, that glittered, varnished by the clear water; he sat down and looked stupidly at them. Then he drank of the brook; then he laved his hot feet and hands in it; it was very cold: it waked him. He rose, and taking a run, leaped across it into Germany. Even as he touched the strange land he turned suddenly and looked back. "Farewell, ungrateful country!" he cried. "But for her it would cost me nought to leave you for ever, and all my kith and kin, and—the mother that bore me, and—my playmates, and my little native town. Farewell, fatherland—welcome the wide world! omne so-lum for-ti p p-at-r-a." And with these brave words in his mouth he drooped suddenly with arms and legs all weak, and sat down and sobbed bitterly upon the foreign soil.
When the young exile had sat a while bowed down, he rose and dashed the tears from his eyes like a man; and not casting a single glance more behind him, to weaken his heart, stepped out into the wide world.
His love and heavy sorrow left no room in him for vulgar misgivings. Compared with rending himself from Margaret, it seemed a small thing to go on foot to Italy in that rude age.
All nations meet in a convent. So, thanks to his good friends the monks, and his own thirst of knowledge, he could speak most of the languages needed on that long road. He said to himself, "I will soon be at Rome; the sooner the better now."
After walking a good league, he came to a place where four ways met. Being country roads, and serpentine, they had puzzled many an inexperienced neighbour passing from village to village. Gerard took out a little dial Peter had given him, and set it in the autumn sun, and by this compass steered unhesitatingly for Rome inexperienced as a young swallow flying south; but unlike the swallow, wandering south alone.
Not far on this road he came upon a little group. Two men in sober suits stood leaning lazily on each side of a horse, talking to one another. The rider, in a silk doublet and bright green jerkin and hose, both of English cloth, glossy as a mole, lay flat on his stomach in the afternoon sun, and looked an enormous lizard. His velvet cloak (flaming yellow) was carefully spread over the horse's loins.
"Is aught amiss?" inquired Gerard.
"Not that I wot of," replied one of the servants.
"But your master, he lies like a corpse. Are ye not ashamed to let him grovel on the ground?"
"Go to; the bare ground is the best cure for his disorder. If you get sober in bed, it gives you a headache; but you leap up from the hard ground like a lark in spring. Eh, Ulric?"
"He speaks sooth, young man," said Ulric warmly.
"What, is the gentleman drunk?"
The servants burst into a hoarse laugh at the simplicity of Gerard's question. But suddenly Ulric stopped, and eyeing him all over, said very gravely, "Who are you, and where born, that know not the Count is ever drunk at this hour?" And Gerard found himself a suspected character.
"I am a stranger," said he, "but a true man, and one that loves knowledge; therefore ask I questions, and not for love of prying."
"If you be a true man," said Ulric shrewdly, "then give us trinkgeld for the knowledge we have given you."
Gerard looked blank, but putting a good face on it, said, "Trinkgeld you shall have, such as my lean purse can spare, an if you will tell me why ye have ta'en his cloak from the man and laid it on the beast."
Under the inspiring influence of coming trinkgeld, two solutions were instantly offered Gerard at once: the one was, that should the Count come to himself (which, being a seasoned toper, he was apt to do all in a minute), and find his horse standing sweating in the cold, while a cloak lay idle at hand, he would fall to cursing, and peradventure to laying on; the other, more pretentious, was, that a horse is a poor milksop, which, drinking nothing but water, has to be cockered up and warmed outside; but a master, being a creature ever filled with good beer, has a store of inward heat that warms him to the skin, and renders a cloak a mere shred of idle vanity.
Each of the speakers fell in love with his theory, and, to tell the truth, both had taken a hair or two of the dog that had bitten their master to the brain; so their voices presently rose so high, that the green sot began to growl instead of snoring. In their heat they did not notice this.
Ere long the argument took a turn that sooner or later was pretty sure to enliven a discussion in that age. Hans, holding the bridle with his right hand, gave Ulric a sound cuff with his left; Ulric returned it with interest, his right hand being free; and at it they went, ding dong, over the horse's mane, pommelling one another, and jagging the poor beast, till he ran backward, and trode with iron heel upon a promontory of the green lord; he, like the toad stung by Ithuriel's spear, started up howling, with one hand clapped to the smart and the other tugging at his hilt. The servants, amazed with terror, let the horse go; he galloped off whinnying, the men in pursuit of him crying out with fear, and the green noble after them, volleying curses, his naked sword in his hand, and his body rebounding from hedge to hedge in his headlong but zigzag career down the narrow lane.
"In which hurtling" Gerard turned his back on them all, and went calmly south, glad to have saved the four tin farthings he had got ready for trinkgeld, but far too heavy hearted even to smile at their drunken extravagance.
The sun was nearly setting, and Gerard, who had now for some time been hoping in vain to find an inn by the way, was very ill at ease. To make matters worse, black clouds gathered over the sky.
Gerard quickened his pace almost to a run.
It was in vain; down came the rain in torrents, drenched the bewildered traveller, and seemed to extinguish the very sun-for his rays, already fading, could not cope with this new assailant.
Gerard trudged on, dark, and wet, and in an unknown region. "Fool! to leave Margaret," said he.
Presently the darkness thickened.
He was entering a great wood. Huge branches shot across the narrow road, and the benighted stranger groped his way in what seemed an interminable and inky cave with a rugged floor, on which he stumbled and stumbled as he went.
On, and on, and on, with shivering limbs and empty stomach, and fainting heart, till the wolves rose from their lairs and bayed all round the wood.
His hair bristled; but he grasped his cudgel, and prepared to sell his life dear.
There was no wind; and his excited ear heard light feet patter at times over the newly fallen leaves, and low branches rustle with creatures gliding swiftly past them.
Presently in the sea of ink there was a great fiery star close to the ground. He hailed it as he would his patron saint. "CANDLE! a CANDLE!" he shouted, and tried to run. But the dark and rugged way soon stopped that. The light was more distant than he had thought. But at last, in the very heart of the forest, he found a house, with lighted candles and loud voices inside it. He looked up to see if there was a signboard. There was none. "Not an inn after all!" said he sadly. "No matter; what Christian would turn a dog out into this wood to-night?" and with this he made for the door that led to the voices. He opened it slowly, and put his head in timidly. He drew it out abruptly, as if slapped in the face, and recoiled into the rain and darkness.
He had peeped into a large but low room, the middle of which was filled by a huge round stove, or clay oven, that reached to the ceiling; round this, wet clothes were drying-some on lines, and some more compendiously, on rustics. These latter habiliments, impregnated with the wet of the day, but the dirt of a life, and lined with what another foot traveller in these parts call "rammish clowns," evolved rank vapours and compound odours inexpressible, in steaming clouds.
In one corner was a travelling family, a large one: thence flowed into the common stock the peculiar sickly smell of neglected brats. Garlic filled up the interstices of the air. And all this with closed window, and intense heat of the central furnace, and the breath of at least forty persons.
They had just supped.
Now Gerard, like most artists, had sensitive organs, and the potent effluvia struck dismay into him. But the rain lashed him outside, and the light and the fire tempted him in.
He could not force his way all at once through the palpable perfumes, but he returned to the light again and again, like the singed moth. At last he discovered that the various smells did not entirely mix, no fiend being there to stir them round. Odour of family predominated in two corners; stewed rustic reigned supreme in the centre; and garlic in the noisy group by the window. He found, too, by hasty analysis, that of these the garlic described the smallest aerial orbit, and the scent of reeking rustic darted farthest—a flavour as if ancient goats, or the fathers of all foxes, had been drawn through a river, and were here dried by Nebuchadnezzar.
So Gerard crept into a corner close to the door. But though the solidity of the main fetors isolated them somewhat, the heat and reeking vapours circulated, and made the walls drip; and the home-nurtured novice found something like a cold snake wind about his legs, and his head turn to a great lump of lead; and next, he felt like choking, sweetly slumbering, and dying, all in one.
He was within an ace of swooning, but recovered to a deep sense of disgust and discouragement; and settled to go back to Holland at peep of day. This resolution formed, he plucked up a little heart; and being faint with hunger, asked one of the men of garlic whether this was not an inn after all?
"Whence come you, who know not 'The Star of the Forest'?" was the reply.
"I am a stranger; and in my country inns have aye a sign."
"Droll country yours! What need of a sign to a public-house—a place that every soul knows?"
Gerard was too tired and faint for the labour of argument, so he turned the conversation, and asked where he could find the landlord?
At this fresh display of ignorance, the native's contempt rose too high for words. He pointed to a middle-aged woman seated on the other side of the oven; and turning to his mates, let them know what an outlandish animal was in the room. Thereat the loud voices stopped, one by one, as the information penetrated the mass; and each eye turned, as on a pivot, following Gerard, and his every movement, silently and zoologically.
The landlady sat on a chair an inch or two higher than the rest, between two bundles. From the first, a huge heap of feathers and wings, she was taking the downy plumes, and pulling the others from the quills, and so filling bundle two littering the floor ankle-deep, and contributing to the general stock a stuffy little malaria, which might have played a distinguished part in a sweet room, but went for nothing here. Gerard asked her if he could have something to eat.
She opened her eyes with astonishment. "Supper is over this hour and more.
"But I had none of it, good dame."
"Is that my fault? You were welcome to your share for me."
"But I was benighted, and a stranger; and belated sore against my will."
"What have I to do with that? All the world knows 'The Star of the Forest' sups from six till eight. Come before six, ye sup well; come before eight, ye sup as pleases Heaven; come after eight, ye get a clean bed, and a stirrup cup, or a horn of kine's milk, at the dawning."
Gerard looked blank. "May I go to bed, then, dame?" said he sulkily "for it is ill sitting up wet and fasting, and the byword saith, 'He sups who sleeps.'"
"The beds are not come yet," replied the landlady. "You will sleep when the rest do. Inns are not built for one."
It was Gerard's turn to be astonished. "The beds were not come! what, in Heaven's name, did she mean?" But he was afraid to ask for every word he had spoken hitherto had amazed the assembly, and zoological eyes were upon him—he felt them. He leaned against the wall, and sighed audibly.
At this fresh zoological trait, a titter went round the watchful company.
"So this is Germany," thought Gerard; "and Germany is a great country by Holland. Small nations for me."
He consoled himself by reflecting it was to be his last, as well as his first, night in the land. His reverie was interrupted by an elbow driven into his ribs. He turned sharp on his assailant, who pointed across the room. Gerard looked, and a woman in the corner was beckoning him. He went towards her gingerly, being surprised and irresolute, so that to a spectator her beckoning finger seemed to be pulling him across the floor with a gut-line. When he had got up to her, "Hold the child," said she, in a fine hearty voice; and in a moment she plumped the bairn into Gerard's arms.
He stood transfixed, jelly of lead in his hands, and sudden horror in his elongated countenance.
At this ruefully expressive face, the lynx-eyed conclave laughed loud and long.
"Never heed them," said the woman cheerfully; "they know no better; how should they, bred an' born in a wood?" She was rummaging among her clothes with the two penetrating hands, one of which Gerard had set free. Presently she fished out a small tin plate and a dried pudding; and resuming her child with one arm, held them forth to Gerard with the other, keeping a thumb on the pudding to prevent it from slipping off.
"Put it in the stove," said she; "you are too young to lie down fasting."
Gerard thanked her warmly. But on his way to the stove, his eye fell on the landlady. "May I, dame?" said he beseechingly.
"Why not?" said she.
The question was evidently another surprise, though less startling than its predecessors.
Coming to the stove, Gerard found the oven door obstructed by "the rammish clowns." They did not budge. He hesitated a moment. The landlady saw, calmly put down her work, and coming up, pulled a hircine man or two hither, and pushed a hircine man or two thither, with the impassive countenance of a housewife moving her furniture. "Turn about is fair play," she said; "ye have been dry this ten minutes and better."
Her experienced eye was not deceived; Gorgonii had done stewing, and begun baking. Debarred the stove, they trundled home, all but one, who stood like a table, where the landlady had moved him to, like a table. And Gerard baked his pudding; and getting to the stove, burst into steam.
The door opened, and in flew a bundle of straw.
It was hurled by a hind with a pitchfork. Another and another came flying after it, till the room was like a clean farmyard. These were then dispersed round the stove in layers, like the seats in an arena, and in a moment the company was all on its back.
The beds had come.
Gerard took out his pudding, and found it delicious. While he was relishing it, the woman who had given it him, and who was now abed, beckoned him again. He went to her bundle side. "She is waiting for you," whispered the woman. Gerard returned to the stove, and gobbled. the rest of his sausage, casting uneasy glances at the landlady, seated silent as fate amid the prostrate multitude. The food bolted, he went to her, and said, "Thank you kindly, dame, for waiting for me."
"You are welcome," said she calmly, making neither much nor little of the favour; and with that began to gather up the feathers. But Gerard stopped her. "Nay, that is my task;" and he went down on his knees, and collected them with ardour. She watched him demurely.
"I wot not whence ye come," said she, with a relic of distrust; adding, more cordially, "but ye have been well brought up;—y' have had a good mother, I'll go bail."
At the door she committed the whole company to Heaven, in a formula, and disappeared. Gerard to his straw in the very corner-for the guests lay round the sacred stove by seniority, i.e. priority of arrival.
This punishment was a boon to Gerard, for thus he lay on the shore of odour and stifling heat, instead of in mid-ocean.
He was just dropping off, when he was awaked by a noise; and lo there was the hind remorselessly shaking and waking guest after guest, to ask him whether it was he who had picked up the mistress's feathers.
"It was I," cried Gerard.
"Oh, it was you, was it?" said the other, and came striding rapidly over the intermediate sleepers. "She bade me say, 'One good turn deserves another,' and so here's your nightcap," and he thrust a great oaken mug under Gerard's nose.
"I thank her, and bless her; here goes—ugh!" and his gratitude ended in a wry face; for the beer was muddy, and had a strange, medicinal twang new to the Hollander.
"Trinke aus!" shouted the hind reproachfully.
"Enow is as good as a feast," said the youth Jesuitically.
The hind cast a look of pity on this stranger who left liquor in his mug. "Ich brings euch," said he, and drained it to the bottom.
And now Gerard turned his face to the wall and pulled up two handfuls of the nice clean straw, and bored in them with his finger, and so made a scabbard, and sheathed his nose in it. And soon they were all asleep; men, maids, wives, and children all lying higgledy-piggledy, and snoring in a dozen keys like an orchestra slowly tuning; and Gerard's body lay on straw in Germany, and his spirit was away to Sevenbergen.
When he woke in the morning he found nearly all his fellow-passengers gone. One or two were waiting for dinner, nine o'clock; it was now six. He paid the landlady her demand, two pfenning, or about an English halfpenny, and he of the pitchfork demanded trinkgeld, and getting a trifle more than usual, and seeing Gerard eye a foaming milk-pail he had just brought from the cow, hoisted it up bodily to his lips. "Drink your fill, man," said he, and on Gerard offering to pay for the delicious draught, told him in broad patois that a man might swallow a skinful of milk, or a breakfast of air, without putting hand to pouch. At the door Gerard found his benefactress of last night, and a huge-chested artisan, her husband.
Gerard thanked her, and in the spirit of the age offered her a creutzer for her pudding.
But she repulsed his hand quietly. "For what do you take me?" said she, colouring faintly; "we are travellers and strangers the same as you, and bound to feel for those in like plight."
Then Gerard blushed in his turn and stammered excuses.
The hulking husband grinned superior to them both.
"Give the vixen a kiss for her pudding, and cry quits," said he, with an air impartial, judge-like and Jove-like.
Gerard obeyed the lofty behest, and kissed the wife's cheek. "A blessing go with you both, good people," said he.
"And God speed you, young man!" replied the honest couple; and with that they parted, and never met again in this world.
The sun had just risen: the rain-drops on the leaves glittered like diamonds. The air was fresh and bracing, and Gerard steered south, and did not even remember his resolve of overnight.
Eight leagues he walked that day, and in the afternoon came upon a huge building with an enormous arched gateway and a postern by its side.
"A monastery!" cried he joyfully; "I go no further lest I fare worse." He applied at the postern, and on stating whence he came and whither bound, was instantly admitted and directed to the guestchamber, a large and lofty room, where travellers were fed and lodged gratis by the charity of the monastic orders. Soon the bell tinkled for vespers, and Gerard entered the church of the convent, and from his place heard a service sung so exquisitely, it seemed the choir of heaven. But one thing was wanting, Margaret was not there to hear it with him, and this made him sigh bitterly in mid rapture. At supper, plain but wholesome and abundant food, and good beer, brewed in the convent, were set before him and his fellows, and at an early hour they were ushered into a large dormitory, and the number being moderate, had each a truckle bed, and for covering, sheepskins dressed with the fleece on; but previously to this a monk, struck by his youth and beauty, questioned him, and soon drew out his projects and his heart. When he was found to be convent bred, and going alone to Rome, he became a personage, and in the morning they showed him over the convent and made him stay and dine in the refectory. They also pricked him a route on a slip of parchment, and the prior gave him a silver guilden to help him on the road, and advised him to join the first honest company he should fall in with, "and not face alone the manifold perils of the way."
"Perils?" said Gerard to himself.
That evening he came to a small straggling town where was one inn; it had no sign; but being now better versed in the customs of the country, he detected it at once by the coats of arms on its walls. These belonged to the distinguished visitors who had slept in it at different epochs since its foundation, and left these customary tokens of their patronage. At present it looked more like a mausoleum than a hotel. Nothing moved nor sounded either in it or about it. Gerard hammered on the great oak door: no answer. He hallooed: no reply. After a while he hallooed louder, and at last a little round window, or rather hole in the wall, opened, a man's head protruded cautiously, like a tortoise's from its shell, and eyed Gerard stolidly, but never uttered a syllable.
"Is this an inn?" asked Gerard, with a covert sneer.
The head seemed to fall into a brown study; eventually it nodded, but lazily.
"Can I have entertainment here?"
Again the head pondered and ended by nodding, but sullenly, and seemed a skull overburdened with catch-penny interrogatories.
"How am I to get within, an't please you?"
At this the head popped in, as if the last question had shot it; and a hand popped out, pointed round the corner of the building, and slammed the window.
Gerard followed the indication, and after some research discovered that the fortification had one vulnerable part, a small low door on its flank. As for the main entrance, that was used to keep out thieves and customers, except once or twice in a year, when they entered together, i.e., when some duke or count arrived in pomp with his train of gaudy ruffians.
Gerard, having penetrated the outer fort, soon found his way to the stove (as the public room was called from the principal article in it), and sat down near the oven, in which were only a few live embers that diffused a mild and grateful heat.
After waiting patiently a long time, he asked a grim old fellow with a long white beard, who stalked solemnly in, and turned the hour-glass, and then was stalking out, when supper would be. The grisly Ganymede counted the guests on his fingers—"When I see thrice as many here as now." Gerard groaned.
The grisly tyrant resented the rebellious sound. "Inns are not built for one," said he; "if you can't wait for the rest, look out for another lodging."
At this the greybeard frowned.
After a while company trickled steadily in, till full eighty persons of various conditions were congregated, and to our novice the place became a chamber of horrors; for here the mothers got together and compared ringworms, and the men scraped the mud off their shoes with their knives, and left it on the floor, and combed their long hair out, inmates included, and made their toilet, consisting generally of a dry rub. Water, however, was brought in ewers. Gerard pounced on one of these, but at sight of the liquid contents lost his temper and said to the waiter, "Wash you first your water, and then a man may wash his hands withal."
"An' it likes you not, seek another inn!"
Gerard said nothing, but went quietly and courteously besought an old traveller to tell him how far it was to the next inn.
"About four leagues."
Then Gerard appreciated the grim pleasantry of the unbending sire.
That worthy now returned with an armful of wood, and counting the travellers, put on a log for every six, by which act of raw justice the hotter the room the more heat he added. Poor Gerard noticed this little flaw in the ancient man's logic, but carefully suppressed every symptom of intelligence, lest his feet should have to carry his brains four leagues farther that night.
When perspiration and suffocation were far advanced, they brought in the table-cloths; but oh, so brown, so dirty, and so coarse; they seemed like sacks that had been worn out in agriculture and come down to this, or like shreads from the mainsail of some worn-out ship. The Hollander, who had never seen such linen even in nightmare, uttered a faint cry.
"What is to do?" inquired a traveller. Gerard pointed ruefully to the dirty sackcloth. The other looked at it with lack lustre eye, and comprehended nought.
A Burgundian soldier with his arbalest at his back came peeping over Gerard's shoulder, and seeing what was amiss, laughed so loud that the room rang again, then slapped him on the back and cried, "Courage! le diable est mort."
Gerard stared: he doubted alike the good tidings and their relevancy; but the tones were so hearty and the arbalestrier's face, notwithstanding a formidable beard, was so gay and genial, that he smiled, and after a pause said drily, "Il a bien faite avec l'eau et linge du pays on allait le noircir a ne se reconnaitre plus."
"Tiens, tiens!" cried the soldier, "v'la qui parle le Francais peu s'en faut," and he seated himself by Gerard, and in a moment was talking volubly of war, women, and pillage, interlarding his discourse with curious oaths, at which Gerard drew away from him more or less.
Presently in came the grisly servant, and counted them all on his fingers superciliously, like Abraham telling sheep; then went out again, and returned with a deal trencher and deal spoon to each.
Then there was an interval. Then he brought them a long mug apiece made of glass, and frowned. By-and-by he stalked gloomily in with a hunch of bread apiece, and exit with an injured air. Expectation thus raised, the guests sat for nearly an hour balancing the wooden spoons, and with their own knives whittling the bread. Eventually, when hope was extinct, patience worn out, and hunger exhausted, a huge vessel was brought in with pomp, the lid was removed, a cloud of steam rolled forth, and behold some thin broth with square pieces of bread floating. This, though not agreeable to the mind, served to distend the body. Slices of Strasbourg ham followed, and pieces of salt fish, both so highly salted that Gerard could hardly swallow a mouthful. Then came a kind of gruel, and when the repast had lasted an hour and more, some hashed meat highly peppered and the French and Dutch being now full to the brim with the above dainties, and the draughts of beer the salt and spiced meats had provoked, in came roasted kids, most excellent, and carp and trout fresh from the stream. Gerard made an effort and looked angrily at them, but "could no more," as the poets say. The Burgundian swore by the liver and pike-staff of the good centurion, the natives had outwitted him. Then turning to Gerard, he said, "Courage, l'ami, le diable est mort," as loudly as before, but not with the same tone of conviction. The canny natives had kept an internal corner for contingencies, and polished the kid's very bones.
The feast ended with a dish of raw animalcula in a wicker cage. A cheese had been surrounded with little twigs and strings; then a hole made in it and a little sour wine poured in. This speedily bred a small but numerous vermin. When the cheese was so rotten with them that only the twigs and string kept it from tumbling to pieces and walking off quadrivious, it came to table. By a malicious caprice of fate, cage and menagerie were put down right under the Dutchman's organ of self-torture. He recoiled with a loud ejaculation, and hung to the bench by the calves of his legs.
"What is the matter?" said a traveller disdainfully. "Does the good cheese scare ye? Then put it hither, in the name of all the saints!"
"Cheese!" cried Gerard, "I see none. These nauseous reptiles have made away with every bit of it."
"Well," replied another, "it is not gone far. By eating of the mites we eat the cheese to boot."
"Nay, not so," said Gerard. "These reptiles are made like us, and digest their food and turn it to foul flesh even as we do ours to sweet; as well might you think to chew grass by eating of grass-fed beeves, as to eat cheese by swallowing these uncleanly insects."
Gerard raised his voice in uttering this, and the company received the paradox in dead silence, and with a distrustful air, like any other stranger, during which the Burgundian, who understood German but imperfectly, made Gerard Gallicize the discussion. He patted his interpreter on the back. "C'est bien, mon gars; plus fin que toi n'est pas bete," and administered his formula of encouragement; and Gerard edged away from him; for next to ugly sights and ill odours, the poor wretch disliked profaneness.
Meantime, though shaken in argument, the raw reptiles were duly eaten and relished by the company, and served to provoke thirst, a principal aim of all the solids in that part of Germany. So now the company drank garausses all round, and their tongues were unloosed, and oh, the Babel! But above the fierce clamour rose at intervals, like some hero's war-cry in battle, the trumpet-like voice of the Burgundian soldier shouting lustily, "Courage, camarades, le diable est mort!"
Entered grisly Ganymede holding in his hand a wooden dish with circles and semicircles marked on it in chalk. He put it down on the table and stood silent, sad, and sombre, as Charon by Styx waiting for his boat-load of souls. Then pouches and purses were rummaged, and each threw a coin into the dish. Gerard timidly observed that he had drunk next to no beer, and inquired how much less he was to pay than the others.
"What mean you?" said Ganymede roughly. "Whose fault is it you have not drunken? Are all to suffer because one chooses to be a milksop? You will pay no more than the rest, and no less."
Gerard was abashed.
"Courage, petit, le diable est mort," hiccoughed the soldier and flung Ganymede a coin.
"You are bad as he is," said the old man peevishly; "you are paying too much;" and the tyrannical old Aristides returned him some coin out of the trencher with a most reproachful countenance. And now the man whom Gerard had confuted an hour and a half ago awoke from a brown study, in which he had been ever since, and came to him and said, "Yes, but the honey is none the worse for passing through the bees' bellies."
Gerard stared. The answer had been so long on the road he hadn't an idea what it was an answer to. Seeing him dumfounded, the other concluded him confuted, and withdrew calmed.
The bedrooms were upstairs, dungeons with not a scrap of furniture except the bed, and a male servant settled inexorably who should sleep with whom. Neither money nor prayers would get a man a bed to himself here; custom forbade it sternly. You might as well have asked to monopolize a see-saw. They assigned to Gerard a man with a great black beard. He was an honest fellow enough, but not perfect; he would not go to bed, and would sit on the edge of it telling the wretched Gerard by force, and at length, the events of the day, and alternately laughing and crying at the same circumstances, which were not in the smallest degree pathetic or humorous, but only dead trivial. At last Gerard put his fingers in his ears, and lying down in his clothes, for the sheets were too dirty for him to undress, contrived to sleep. But in an hour or two he awoke cold, and found that his drunken companion had got all the feather bed; so mighty is instinct. They lay between two beds; the lower one hard and made of straw, the upper soft and filled with feathers light as down. Gerard pulled at it, but the experienced drunkard held it fast mechanically. Gerard tried to twitch it away by surprise, but instinct was too many for him. On this he got out of bed, and kneeling down on his bedfellow's unguarded side, easily whipped the prize away and rolled with it under the bed, and there lay on one edge of it, and curled the rest round his shoulders. Before he slept he often heard something grumbling and growling above him, which was some little satisfaction. Thus instinct was outwitted, and victorious Reason lay chuckling on feathers, and not quite choked with dust.
At peep of day Gerard rose, flung the feather bed upon his snoring companion, and went in search of milk and air.
A cheerful voice hailed him in French: "What ho! you are up with the sun, comrade."
"He rises betimes that lies in a dog's lair," answered Gerard crossly.
"Courage, l'ami! le diable est mort," was the instant reply. The soldier then told him his name was Denys, and he was passing from Flushing in Zealand to the Duke's French dominions; a change the more agreeable to him, as he should revisit his native place, and a host of pretty girls who had wept at his departure, and should hear French spoken again. "And who are you, and whither bound?"
"My name is Gerard, and I am going to Rome," said the more reserved Hollander, and in a way that invited no further confidences.
"All the better; we will go together as far as Burgundy."
"That is not my road."
"All roads take to Rome."
"Ay, but the shortest road thither is my way."
"Well, then, it is I who must go out of my way a step for the sake of good company, for thy face likes me, and thou speakest French, or nearly."
"There go two words to that bargain," said Gerard coldly. "I steer by proverbs, too. They do put old heads on young men's shoulders. 'Bon loup mauvais compagnon, dit le brebis;' and a soldier, they say, is near akin to a wolf."
"They lie," said Denys; "besides, if he is, 'les loups ne se mangent pas entre eux.'"
"Aye but, sir soldier, I am not a wolf; and thou knowest, a bien petite occasion se saisit le loup du mouton.'"